On 11th & 12th October I had the pleasure of attending the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference hosted by the UK Government and attended by representatives from over 80 different nations. Over two fantastic days, world leaders, NGOs and private sector companies came together as a global coalition to discuss how we must work together as a matter of urgency to protect, and ultimately save, the planet’s wildlife from the abhorrent illegal trade, estimated to be worth £17 billion annually.
An Opening Ceremony hosted by Rageh Omaar and Aidan Gallagher set the tone for the following 48 hours with passionate keynote speeches from UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jeremy Hunt, His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, His Excellency Mr Mokgweetsi Masisi President of Botswana and Ellie Goulding, UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador.
“illegal wildlife crime makes us all poorer, not just those countries robbed of their wildlife, natural habitat and resources, but all of us who are cheated of our natural inheritance, the rich diversity of our living world”
As difficult as it is to try and compress two days of a conference into a blog post, I will try and keep it short and sweet. One thing that really stood out to me was how the focus, and somewhat rightly so, was on the trade in elephant, rhino, tiger and pangolin parts. I heard only one reference to lions and feel strongly that, largely due to the growing situation within SA with the lion bone trade, we need to bring lions to the conversation. It was also fascinating to learn about the illegal trade in live animals, mainly from Central American countries - the IWT is not limited to the trade in body parts of poached animals but it a far larger issue, threatening almost every wild species we have.
The conference focused on the many paths that the IWT takes, ones that even I had not considered. The importance of tighter laws and law enforcement was emphasised, but as was other initiatives such as the Wildlife Financial Taskforce - 20 global banks pledging to target money laundering by wildlife criminals. The conversations also looked at solutions to human wildlife conflict and how tech companies can assist the global fight against wildlife crime.
The conference also saw the launch of the Ivory Alliance 2024 which aims to have over 30 countries committed to introducing national bans on the sale of ivory by the same date.
I found the Opening Session on day two valuable as it opened the discussion to the role that women play in bringing an end to the trade. Chaired by Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, we heard from Her Excellency Fatima Maada Bio, First Lady of Sierra Leone as she discussed her own experience of harnessing the persuasive power of women within communities. "In Africa, when a woman understands a situation and that the situation will affect her family and her children and her home - she will protect." We heard how, particularly in Sierra Leone, women within communities are at the forefront of change, regardless of whether such change has to be put in place by a man - "A woman can talk to her husband in the room and when her husband goes outside and wants to change his mind, he will think about what will happen when goes home."
Trying to end this post after such a heavy two days has proven incredibly difficult. The fact that this conference even took place can only ever give you an optimistic attitude but 48 hours of devastating images, stats and presentations about the perils that our wildlife face also made me feel somewhat defeated. Have we left it too late? Is the job ahead too big to even comprehend? Where do we even begin?
As I sat on my train home in comfort, it dawned on me that attending the conference as a Campaign Manager was a luxury. It's very easy to discuss the abhorrent behaviour of poachers and traffickers when you can return to a flat, order a takeaway and watch TV on the sofa with a glass of wine. It's very easy to dismiss them as evil beings with no regards for wildlife, but one quote sprang to mind:
"While there is poverty, there will always be poaching."
And there it is; the most important lesson I learned during IWT. As much as we need to end the illegal trade in wildlife, we need to consider what can drive a person to cruelly end the life of an animal for the benefit of a businessman, ordering shark fin soup to impress his colleagues. As much as we need stricter laws and law enforcement, we need to offer alternative incomes to communities devoid of jobs and regular incomes. If we arrest a man for illegally feeding his family bush meat, we need to ensure he can feed his family with other means. Don't get me wrong, as you look higher up the chain of the trade there are incredibly rich, corrupt people involved, but it is those people taking advantage of poor communities with few other options. I honestly feel that this illegal trade is not only a failure of our treatment of wildlife, but also a failure of our treatment of mankind.
We are at crisis point. We are rapidly approaching the point of no return and we cannot leave it for the next generation to suffer the consequences.
We need to #EndWildlifeCrime.